Cobina Wright, who has died aged 90, was the stunning American cover girl and actress whom the young Prince Philip fell for in Venice in the summer of 1938.
She was born on August 14 1921 in New York City, where her father, William May Wright, was a successful stockbroker. Her mother, also Cobina Wright, was an opera singer and actress notorious for her social ambition: Hardy Amies quipped that she took her alpenstock with her to parties. By the mid-1930s Cobina Sr’s hopes were firmly pinned on her beautiful young daughter, whom she frantically set about grooming for a film career capped by a spectacular marriage. When Mr Wright complained about what he saw as the “prostitution” of their daughter, his wife promptly divorced him. By 1938 Cobina Jr, pushed along by her mother, was already under contract with 20th Century Fox, while also modelling and singing in nightclubs. That summer her mother took her to Venice, and at Harry’s Bar she met Prince Philip of Greece. She later recalled that, on seeing the handsome young prince, her mother had “shoved” her into his arms.
The period before their meeting had been a particularly traumatic one for Prince Philip, who was still mourning his 26-year-old sister Cecile and her family, who had died in a plane crash the previous November, and also his much-loved uncle and guardian George Milford Haven (Louis Mountbatten’s less flashy elder brother), who had died that spring aged 44.
Invited to Venice by his “Aunt” Aspasia of Greece (who had lived there ever since the death of her husband, King Alexander, Philip’s first cousin, from blood poisoning after a monkey bite), the young prince relished the opportunity to let his hair down after such a harrowing year. His father had pleaded with Aspasia beforehand to “keep him out of girl trouble”, as he still had the entrance exams to Dartmouth to pass; yet Aspasia’s daughter, Alexandra, later remembered that he “gallantly and impartially” squired a succession of “blondes, brunettes and redhead charmers”.
He was showered with invitations from Venetian society hostesses, and at each gathering, wrote Alexandra, “there was invariably some lovely young thing in tulle or organdie” to whom Philip offered a ride home. “No need to keep the driver, Auntie Aspasia,” he would say, “I’ll take over. The boatman’s had a long day.” Aspasia complied on condition that he came back within 20 minutes. Eventually, though, Cobina began to stand out from the rest, and Philip begged his aunt to be allowed to stay out in the boat a little longer. “Very well,” she agreed. “But you are to cruise round and round the island and don’t stop the engine! I shall be listening.” After three or four circuits the engine suddenly went silent and remained so for the next five minutes. When eventually they returned, Philip sheepishly explained that they had had “trouble with the sparking plugs”.
Cobina was two months younger than Philip (they both turned 17 that summer) and extremely pretty: tall, slim and blonde, with huge blue eyes and a radiant smile. He was, by common consent, “astronomically good-looking”. Even if their initial meeting had been engineered by Cobina Sr, there was evidently a strong mutual attraction.
Over the next three weeks Philip escorted Cobina around Venice, before following her back to London for another week with her there, “dining, dancing, and walking London’s streets, hand in hand”.
When mother and daughter left for America, he vowed to follow, and was said to have cried as he kissed the younger Cobina goodbye. Cobina’s friend, Gant Gaither, the Broadway producer, later maintained that Philip then wrote her “impassioned love letters. He said he planned to woo her to marriage, no matter what. He desperately wanted to marry her, but [in the end] Cobina Jr just wasn’t all that interested.” Other friends later speculated that she did not want to go out with someone chosen for her by her pushy mother.
Back in New York, however, Cobina Sr’s promotion of her daughter continued unabated, and, thanks to her efforts, in 1939 Cobina Jr was awarded the title of Miss Manhattan and named the “most attractive girl of the 1939 season”.
When Bob Hope used her as the basis for a spoilt character called Cobina on his radio programme, Cobina Jr never SUED Bob Hope they were best of friends. Cobina Jr then became a regular guest on his programme, alongside Jerry Colonna, Brenda Frazier and Vera Vague. In 1941, still under contract to 20th Century Fox, and by then residing in Beverly Hills, Cobina Jr appeared in a number of films: Small Town Deb, with Jane Withers; as Jessica Gerald in Murder Among Friends, in which subscribers to a $200,000 insurance policy die one by one; Moon Over Miami (1941), about sisters Kay (Betty Grable) and Barbara (Carole Landis), who arrive in Miami from Texas looking for rich husbands; in Week-End in Havana (with Cesar Romero, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda), about a shopgirl who falls for a shipping tycoon; and as one of the early murder victims in Charlie Chan in Rio.
The next year she made a further two films: Right to the Heart, with Brenda Joyce; and director Gregory Ratoff’s Footlight Serenade, with Betty Grable, John Payne, Jane Wyman and Victor Mature. In November 1941, meanwhile, soon after featuring on the cover of Life magazine, Cobina had married 28-year-old Corporal Palmer T Beaudette, the scion of a wealthy automobile family from Pontiac, Michigan. He could not stand Cobina’s mother, and after a series of rows retired his wife from the screen in 1943.
Cobina Sr went on to appear in a bit-part in The Razor’s Edge (1946), based on the story by Somerset Maugham, but she became far better known in the 1950s as a syndicated gossip columnist and society hostess — her parties attracting the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the Mountbattens. Cobina Jr was often there too, minus her husband, but like him had by then taken to the bottle.
Following Palmer Beaudette’s death in 1968, she discovered that his share of his father’s estate reverted, under his father’s will, back to his brothers and sisters, and she was left all but penniless, a shock that hampered her own recovery from alcoholism. She did eventually manage to make progress, however, and subsequently devoted much of her time to volunteering in programmes for recovering alcoholics. She also served until recently on the board of the National Council on Alcoholism.
Cobina was often pressed on the subject of her romance with Prince Philip, most recently by the author Philip Eade for his book Young Prince Philip (2011), but she refused to go into any detail about their relationship, beyond that which she had already volunteered to the American Town and Country magazine in 1973: “I met him [Philip] in Venice and he followed me to London.” She also revealed that in her bedroom she kept three photographs of “the three loves of my life” — one of them being Prince Philip. They were still “good friends”, she said, and wrote to each other often.
By a quirk of fate, Prince Philip’s son Prince Andrew was romantically linked to Cobina’s daughter, Cobina Caroline (nicknamed CC III), before his marriage to Sarah Ferguson in 1986. Cobina Wright is survived by two sons and a daughter, and a stepdaughter from her husband’s first marriage.
Cobina Wright, born August 14 1921, died September 1 2011